COMMENT: JESSELL AT LARGE

SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE FOR THE NEW NAB CHIEF

David Rehr wants to cozy up to the telcos, bring back the nets and spend big money on Capitol Hill. It all sounds good in theory, but...

TVNewsCheck contributing editor Kim McAvoy had it right in her interview with the new president of NAB, David Rehr. If his reputation for combativeness and energy is deserved, cable may be trouble. A large part of his agenda is cable—multicast must-carry, retransmission consent, HD conversion and telco entry. He’ll work hard to rack up early wins on these issues. If he does, he will make broadcasters happy and prove himself a worthy successor to Eddie Fritts.

Rehr says he is ready to work with the telephone companies in easing their way into video where they would become an alternative to cable. The upside of telco entry is great—serious retrans dollars not only from the telcos, but from the cable operators. With telco and satellite competitors in their markets, broadcasters would have tremendous leverage in negotiations with cable.

But Rehr will be wise to tread lightly here. The telcos want to undermine the franchising authority of every municipality in the country by getting the feds or the states to preempt them. Do local-oriented broadcasters really want to join that effort? Do they want to antagonize local mayors and town councils? Also, judging from yesterday’s statement by Senators Conrad Burns and Daniel Inouye, federal franchise-preemption legislation may not be worth spending political capital on.

I understand why Rehr wants to get the networks to return to the NAB by “hook or crook.” It would restore the NAB to the heights of its political power. Cable would really be in trouble. However, I have a feeling that whether the networks return has less to do with Rehr than with the large TV station groups that now dominate the NAB’s TV board. Are they willing to share the power of NAB (and its considerable wealth) with the broadcast networks? Are they convinced that the networks’ interests are fully aligned with their own? The second question is a big one, especially for Fox and NBC. In the coming battles with cable, they may want to pull their punches for the sake of their cable networks.

Rehr also thinks the NAB can do a better job reminding congressmen of all the good deeds that broadcasters do back home. You can always do better, I suppose, but the NAB’s propaganda operation is already in high gear. Under Fritts, the NAB began an aggressive campaign to remind lawmakers of the billions of dollars worth of public service that broadcasters provide. It also began the high-profile Service to America Summit, which seems designed to drag as many congressmen and other influentials onto a stage with as many do-gooder broadcasters as possible. Given everything else that is going on, marketing broadcasters doesn’t seem a high priority to me.

Much of Rehr magic at the Beer Wholesalers was money. He wrung a lot of money out of his members there and directed it to the right lawmakers at the right time. He wants to do the same at NAB. First off, I wish him luck in squeezing broadcasters. This is not the best of financial times for TV or radio. Second, I caution him that broadcasting is far more closely scrutinized than beer wholesaling. In this post-Abramoff world, throwing around big money on Capitol Hill could do more harm than good. To be listed among Washington’s big spenders is not good for an industry that is, because of its newsrooms, supposed to be the watchdog of every other industry in the country. And one ethical misstep would be a disaster for Rehr and for the industry.

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Rehr is reviewing member services and programs and is looking for feedback on them. Give it. Don’t wait to be asked. With a changing of the guard, everything is in play. This is your chance to get more for your dues.

I met Rehr for the first time in December over lunch with a handful of other reporters and editors. I found him bright, energetic and single-minded in his determination to win for broadcasters. And I was surprised by how well he had grasped the fundamental principle of broadcast lobbying: government regulation is good if you can make it work for you and not against you. He had applied the same principle for the beer distributors. Perhaps it’s common to every lobby in Washington.

Surrounded by experienced and competent hands at the NAB, Rehr no doubt knows his product by now. The only question now is, can he sell it. I wish him well.


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